With the summer rains come the thunder, the lightning - and the verdolagas.

Known as Mexican watercress or purslane to its fans, and viewed as a weed by its detractors, the green leafy verdolagas have reddish stems and small yellow flowers.

"We love to fry them up with onions and chiles, mix them with beans and sprinkle Mexican cheese on top," said Ramiro Romero, a native Tucsonan. "Then we eat them with warm corn tortillas."

Mai and Ramiro Romero, along with their daughters Arrisela and Abriana and Ramiro's mother, found their verdolagas Thursday at the farmers market at El Mercado San Agustín on West Congress Street. Local gardeners and growers, including the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, sell the popular plant at farmers markets throughout town.

Mention verdolagas to some Tucsonans and they will happily recall stories of harvesting the plant from the banks of rivers, arroyos and irrigation canals.

Romero, 46, remembers picking verdolagas along the Santa Cruz River in Menlo Park and Kroger Lane, two west-side barrios.

His 91-year-old mother, Maria Santos Romero, said that for her family and others, wild verdolagas were a free and nutritious food source.

She loves her verdolagas sautéed with tomatoes and garlic. I like mine Sonora style - cooked with onions mixed with a splash of milk and a dash of flour to create a gravy. Others like them scrambled in eggs.

Mai Romero discovered the naturally salty and vitamin-rich verdolagas when she came to the United States from her native Vietnam. She likes to add jalapeños or serrano chiles.

Brad Lancaster was introduced to the summer plant by the older Mexican women he would see collecting verdolagas in his Dunbar/Spring neighborhood just north of downtown. They passed on their stories and recipes to him.

While some local gardeners have recently discovered verdolagas, Matt Perri, a lifelong Menlo Park resident, recalls them growing in his mother's garden.

"My mom would send me out to get some verdolagas," said Perri, who still grows them in his garden and sells them at the farmers market.

"Some people think they're just weeds. But they're a cash crop."

Verdolagas are found in other parts of the world, including Mexico, Asia and the Mediterranean. In Tucson and Southern Arizona, verdolagas - like tepary and mesquite beans, and nopales (prickly pear cactus pads) - are part of our cultural heritage.

"It's a food greatly connected to our region," said Leona Davis, education and advocacy coordinator at the community food bank.

At the food bank at 3003 S. Country Club Road, Patricia Rojas oversees the community garden. Verdolagas grow freely among the vegetables and herbs.

"They start coming up in mid-June and remain until September," said Rojas, a trained architect born in Colombia.

Sadly, the days of plucking verdolagas from riverbanks or low-lying areas are gone. More of Tucson is paved over, and summer rains don't linger as long.

But verdolagas can be grown. They can sprout from seed or be transplanted.

"They are easy to care for," Rojas said. "They are good to eat and they grow like weeds."

Ernesto Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at netopjr@azstarnet.com or at 520-573-4187.